2.3 Fritz Perls
Friedrich S (Fritz) Perls is the controversial and charismatic co-founder, along with his wife Lore Perls, of the Gestalt Therapy movement. Existentialist principles are again in the foreground, notably the here and now, awareness, self-responsibility and authenticity. Perls expresses ideal human development (or maturation) as aligned towards self-support rather than environmental manipulation. He postulates two main models to describe human development, especially where the above traits and values become blocked or submerged. Since Perls tends to view causative departures into the past as avoidant intellectualisation, expression and challenging intervention are more pivotal than analysis and specious explanation. How transcends why.
The first model proposed by Perls is often termed the layers of neurosis, with the authentic personality buried under four such levels.
· The most superficial is the clichÃ© or “phoney” layer of small talk and other token contact with self and others.
· A little deeper is the role or “as if” layer, where the individual again loses sight of more fundamental levels of self by playing the perfect daughter or the learned professor, for instance, or the devoted parent, “superwoman” or macho man. The clichÃ© and role levels appear to connect well with the Jungian persona (see Section 1.6).
· Once the above two layers are “pierced” – for example, through a Gestalt therapist’s skilful frustration of his client’s preoccupation with the past or future – the person feels very stuck, having hit the impasse or “phobic avoidance” or “anti-existence” layer. Although uncomfortable for the individual, the impasse layer signals the cessation of “game playing” and a greater opportunity for authenticity.
· Letting go of habitual patterns is, nevertheless, threatening. Hence, the person strives to hold herself together at the implosive or “death” layer, feeling paralysed by opposing forces, sensing that something awful is about to happen.
To the extent that the individual does let go, the explosive or authentic layer is reached. This may involve an intense expression of primal feelings of joy, anger, grief and orgasm, enabling the person to complete unfinished business. Psychological energy is thereby freed, restored and rebalanced. Essentially without trying to, the person has made good quality contact with the authentic self and its maturation. For Perls, the importance of staying in the present and focusing on sensory awareness cannot be overstated.
The stopping block seems to be the anxiety. Always anxiety. Of course you are anxious if you have to learn a new way of behaviour, and the psychiatrists usually are afraid of anxiety. They don’t know what anxiety is. Anxiety is the excitement, the Ã©lan vital which we carry with us, and which becomes stagnated if we are unsure about the role we have to play. If we don’t know if we will get applause or tomatoes, we hesitate, so the heart begins to race and all the excitement can’t flow into activity, and we have stage fright. So the formula of anxiety is very simple: anxiety is the gap between the now and the then. If you are in the now, you can’t be anxious, because the excitement flows immediately into ongoing spontaneous activity. If you are in the now, you are creative, you are inventive. If you have your senses ready, if you have your eyes and ears open, like every small child, you find a solution. (Perls, 1969a: 4)
The second, more contemporary, model in Gestalt Therapy to delineate most aspects of this approach, including human psychological development, is the cycle of awareness. This might be described as the sequence of, say, seven discrete events between a need arising and being discharged, in significant part to complete unfinished business.
1) During the sensation phase, the need emerges as a bodily experience, though may remain primarily in the background.
2) The need comes into the foreground during the awareness phase and is consciously acknowledged. In perceptual terms – a key aspect of Gestalt psychology – figure crystallises from ground.
3) During mobilisation, the person decides whether to commit herself to fulfilling the need. It may be a time of decision-making and, in Perlsian language,excitement.
4) The action phase involves implementation of the plans to discharge the need (a simple physiological example might be making for the fridge to get a drink). With more complex psychological needs, some experimentation with particular strategies may be indicated to make good contact with the “object” which will satisfy the need.
5) Assuming all previous stages have been successfully negotiated, final contactmay ensue. The person becomes intensely absorbed in the activity (e.g. drinking) and stays purely in the moment. On a psychological level regarding complex needs, spontaneous change tends to occur (for example, through abreaction).
6) Satisfaction represents the “quiet after the storm” as the person “comes down” and disengages from the final contact experience.
7) There is then a retreat into the neutral transition zone of withdrawal, where the individual awaits the emergence of the next need.
Healthy human development is reflected in a relatively free flow of energy through the above phases. When blockages occur in the flow of energy, psychological disturbance is thought to arise. A person who could legitimately express anger, for instance, might:
· be “numbed” out of it due to previous adverse experiences (“desensitisation”);
· focus on something else (“deflection”);
· have internalised rules such as having to be nice to others (“introjection”);
· see others to be angry at him rather than the other way around (“projection”);
· turn the anger back on himself (“retroflection”);
· spectate on himself when expressing the anger (“egotism”); or
· be “hooked” on his own anger and keep getting angry (“confluence”).
Gestalt therapists strongly suggest that these so-called boundary disturbances are disruptive to human psychological development, preventing an individual from making good contact with his experiences and living authentically.
The boundary disturbances are described in more detail below.
· Desensitisation involves switching off and being numb. The person afflicted by anorexia, for example, is desensitised to her own hunger.
· Deflection is characterised by distraction and launching into other activities, thereby turning away from direct contact. It is typified by the butterfly mind.
· The person prone to introjection “swallows whole” – to employ Perls’ regularly employed digestive metaphor – various rules, regulations and maxims: “big boys don’t cry”, “never trust anyone”, “always control your feelings”, and so forth. Personality disintegration becomes a distinct possibility when the person assimilates from both respective parents conflicting messages, such as “dog eat dog” on the one hand and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” on the other.
· In projection, identical to the Freudian defence mechanism (see Section 1.3), a neglected quality or feeling is attributed to others. It is thought to be the psychological basis of paranoia.
· The person prone to retroflection holds back an impulse and directs it at himself, perhaps resulting in some form of self-harm.
· Egotism entails an “outsider mentality”, often obliterating spontaneity and creating “paralysis by analysis”.
· Confluence is all about enmeshment, overidentification and the inability to let go. It may be exemplified by the workaholic or celebrity groupie. There is a lack of separation and clear boundaries between self and others.
Although a hierarchical conceptualisation would undoubtedly be more accurate, the boundary disturbances interrupt the flow of energy approximately in parallel to the stages in the cycle of awareness model. Those of the Gestalt persuasion, however, do not condone the opposite polarity (or “bipole”) of each boundary disturbance, but rather encourage the establishment of a healthy midpoint. The following table may provide additional clarification.
|CYCLE OF AWARENESS||BOUNDARYDISTURBANCE||DESCRIPTION||BIPOLE||HEALTHYMIDPOINT|
|Mobilisation||Introjection||Swallowing whole||Spitting out||Processing (chewing over)|
|Final Contact||Retroflection||Turning back on self||Outward aggression||Assertiveness|
Perls, F (1947). Ego, Hunger and Aggression. New York: Random House.
Perls, F (1948). Theory and Technique of Personal Integration. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 2: 565-586.
Perls, F (1967). Group vs. individual therapy. Review of General Semantics, 34: 306-312.
Perls, F (1969a). Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Lafayette, CA: Real People Press.
Perls, F (1969b). In and Out the Garbage Pail. Lafayette, CA: Real People Press.
Perls, F (1973). The Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behaviour Books.
Perls, F, Hefferline, R & Goodman, P (1951). Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian Press.
Perls, L (1986). Opening Address: 8th Annual Conference on the Theory and Practice of Gestalt Therapy – May 17, 1985. Gestalt Journal, 9(1): 12-15.
Perls, L (1992). Concepts and Misconceptions of Gestalt Therapy. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 32(3): 50-56.
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